ATHENS — Greece's response to the first wave of the coronavirus and the possibility of a second general lockdown were among the issues touched on in a discussion on "Politics, Power and the Pandemic" between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and historian and author Yuval Noah Harari on Saturday, during the Athens Democracy Forum 2020, with journalist Liz Alderman, chief business correspondent of the "New York Times", as moderator.
Talking about the management of the pandemic and privacy issues, Mitsotakis said it was not possible to have a police officer for each citizen, to check whether or not they were wearing a mask, while he referred to the discussion on the pandemic held at the European Council, noting that a second general lockdown was seen as difficult, if not unthinkable.
"As far as the Greek 'experiment' is concerned, we would not have been successful in fighting the first wave of the pandemic had we not be able to engage citizens proactively and build a relationship of trust between government – and by government I mean the state and not necessarily the elected government – and citizens. It was not easy because we came out of 10 years of crisis when all of our institutions were challenged but we did manage to create a sense of collective destiny, which, however, also assumed changes in individual behaviour – something that you know is always quite tricky to deliver and it can never be totally imposed," the prime minister said.
Mitsotakis said the Greek government enlisted the help of technology but "did this in a creative way": "When, for example, we asked citizens to send an SMS as to whether they planned to leave the house, one could argue that this was the imposition of a surveillance state but we deleted all the data. And we made it very clear that it was a mechanism of collective empowerment rather than us having access to citizen data and monitoring them, wherever they are. And we know that when it comes to behaviour, you can't have a policeman next to everyone checking whether they wear or do not wear a mask. So changes in individual behaviour are critical but in order to achieve them, first of all, the choices cannot be political; so wearing a mask is not a political statement, it is an act of self-defence but also an act of solidarity because you protect other people, especially your family, since we know that most of the transmission is taking place within the household, so it is an act to protect those who you love the most. I am a big believer that you can actually use data in a public, in an open way to help us drive educated decision-making."
On the EU's response to the second wave of the pandemic, Mitsotakis said a general lockdown was not likely.
"When the first wave hit we didn't know much about the virus. The choice was very clear. We had to lock down and we took the decision very, very early and it was clearly the right decision because we managed to crush the virus during its first wave. We knew that we had to take that decision at that time because we needed time in order to learn more about the virus and also strengthen our healthcare system. But we also knew that this would have a devastating economic impact, although I must say that in a globalised world, even countries that did not go into a full lockdown, such as Sweden, ending up paying the economic price. I think there is a general agreement among European countries that it is very difficult, almost inconceivable, to go to a second full lockdown – and we are much smarter now, so we can do localised lockdowns, we use contact tracing in a much smarter way, we do much more testing but there is still a big question mark. The question mark is can we manage to live with the virus while maintaining economic normality without a full lockdown and without putting too much strain on our health system? I think no one has the answer yet because we still have three or four very difficult months," the prime minister said.
He expressed hope and optimism that it will not be necessary to go to more drastic measures than those already taken but as to whether this could be maintained with certainty, he noted that the answer was clearly 'no'.
"As far as economic support is concerned, even we in Greece supported the income of practically everyone, including the private sector; this is essentially the welfare state on steroids. We actually made it very clear that we needed to spend money to support the weaker members, those who will be hit the hardest – low-paying jobs, jobs in the hospitality sector, which was hit very hard during the summer because of tourism. And we can still afford to do it for some time but, obviously we cannot do it forever. So we are watching the numbers very carefully as we enter the fall and the winter. We are lucky in Greece because we can be outdoors for quite some time but then you look at countries such as Israel that did very well during the first wave and are facing a great crisis now and you understand how unpredictable these things are. There is also an element of randomness, as you can have two or three super-spreader events and they can make all the difference," Mitsotakis noted.
The prime minister went on to wish US President Donald Trump a speedy recovery from the virus, saying that his own message from this was the fact that the virus did not discriminate or exclude anyone.
Commenting on the possibility that the health rise may lead to the rise of autocratic regimes in the future, he said the great challenge will be to "reinvent the state" within the framework of democracy.
According to Mitsotakis, the pandemic showed that the state was important, especially in times of crisis, and cannot be replaced by either individual free will or the markets, saying that this was its clear lesson.
He also noted the way the pandemic had accelerated the digital transformation and the fight against bureaucracy, calling Covid-19 a "digital accelerator".
"We delivered digital services in weeks, we had not been able to do it for decades. Obviously, we had put a lot of work into transforming the state and I see the digital revolution as the only way to break through bureaucratic silos. We've been able to initiate this state re-engineering process by using digital tools and it is very much appreciated by citizens," the prime minister said.
He noted that this was a non-ideological approach that was truly appealing to young people and fights against a bureaucracy that had been holding Greece back for many years. "This, I would argue, is almost an opportunity for us to leap-frog other countries because we are doing it in such a dramatic fashion and the impact can be so significant," he added.
Mitsotakis went on to highlight the government's commitment to reforms and also noted democracy's ability to "self-correct", saying that this was apparent in Greece which had ended 10 years of populism with a shift back to a "government that is liberal, moderate…which wants to make great changes and which enjoys great popular support."
He noted Greece's advantages as a place to live, especially during a period such as the pandemic. "If you could not just live but also work from anywhere, would you not prefer to work from here, from Greece, from a Greek island," he noted, pointing out that they provided both connectivity, security and good healthcare.
"There will be winners and losers, there not be only losers as a result of the disruption cause by Covid," he added, "and it is my responsibility, as prime minister of Greece, to ensure that we belong to those that emerge stronger from the pandemic."